A New Take on Higher Education Fundraising

James Vineburgh

In today’s guest post, James Vineburgh explains how the typical donor persona for higher education is changing to younger donors, more women donors, more tech-savvy donors, and less trusting donors — and what that means for fundraisers. While this research is based on alumni giving, I bet it holds true for other kinds of nonprofits too. What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments.   ~Kivi

Guest Post by James Vineburgh, PhD, Director of Research and Marketing at Converge Consulting

A rollercoaster economy, budgets cut to pieces, insane competition for every charitable cent – is this scenario familiar? This is the reality that higher education institutions across the nation (as well the more than 1.6 million non-profit organizations) face. Throwing fuel on the fire, colleges and universities are soliciting a new generation of prospective donors that, compared to generations past, is younger, comprised of more women, more technologically sophisticated, and less trusting.

As Moody concluded in its 2011 Outlook for Higher Education report, fundraising is presently more important than ever in terms of the viability and success of our colleges and universities. But, how can higher education institutions increase funding when so many potential donors are clamoring to save or stay afloat financially (much less compete with millions of non-profit organizations for the same pool of dollars)?

Whether we like it or not, schools close doors without funding. To provide education, which has been strongly associated with salary levels, employment rates, participation in civic activities, and perceptions of self worth, it takes the almighty dollar. Who doesn’t want more funding for education?!

But, as much as we say we support the cause, we don’t practice what we preach. Most of us stop providing our institutions with money once we have graduated. Are we waiting until our salaries are just a little bit higher? Are we waiting until the recession is over? Do we feel that our alma maters have a much larger nest egg than we do?

Whatever our reasons, schools still need more money and that money has to come from somewhere (or, more accurately, someone). This post’s purpose is not to point fingers. Instead, its intention is to examine new research that is related to higher education philanthropy and to discuss the implications of the study in practical terms. These implications, if turned into action, could provide higher education with a glimmer of hope amidst the storm that looms so ominously on the horizon.

Converge Consulting conducted a national study of 2050 alumni to examine donor attitudes, motivations, and behavior. The questions guiding the study were:

  • What motivates people to give?
  • What differentiates those who give from those who do not?
  • Where and how should advancement professionals expend limited resources to maximize their efforts?

The national study uncovered three distinct personas (click through for an infographic on the donor types). These three groups differ significantly vis-à-vis attitudes, motivations, and behaviors associated with giving.

The following are noteworthy study findings:

  • Champions (31% of surveyed alumni) are strong advocates of their institutions. They attend sporting events, wear hats with school logos, and value the personal and professional benefits that relate to their educational experience. However, 49% of Champions have never donated to their institutions.
  • Friends (36% of surveyed alumni), while not as visible as Champions in terms of outward institutional support, are proud to be graduates of their institutions, tend to be satisfied with their lives, and are charitable people. However, 56% of Friends have never donated to their institutions. Those Friends who do give tend to place a higher priority on giving to other charities.
  • Acquaintances (33% of surveyed alumni) had fleeting relationships with their colleges and universities when they were students and do not wish to continue their relationships after they graduate. 86% of Acquaintances have never donated to their institutions and likely never will.

No matter what the makeup of an institution’s alumni pool looks like in terms of Champions, Friends, and Acquaintances, the writing is on the wall: Institutions need considerable increases in the number of people donating in addition to increased levels of support from those who do give.

The study findings provide fundraisers with the tools to segment their alumni into the three donor types indicated above, reallocate resources according to their mix of donor types, and communicate with alumni via their preferred communication channels and in ways that they will find more engaging.

Education is essential to our individual and societal health, wealth, and peace of mind. We need to put our money where our mouths are. Improved fundraising efforts are critical to provide access to educational opportunities as well as to improve the quality and further the causes of those who provide them.

James Vineburgh, Jr., PhD is the Director of Research and Marketing at Converge Consulting. He is a published scholar and conference presenter on topics that range from innovative use of technology in educational settings to employees’ attitudinal characteristics that are associated with organizational effectiveness.

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